University of Oregon School of Law.
University of Oregon School of Law. (Photo: Visitor7 via Wikimedia Commons)

The legal academy is responding with outrage and disgust that a white professor at the University of Oregon School of Law wore blackface to an off-campus Halloween party attended by some fellow law faculty and students.

Some colleagues are calling for Nancy Shurtz’s resignation and professors elsewhere are saying the incident is a symptom of a deeper problem with race on law campuses.

Shurtz, who has been on the Oregon Law faculty since 1982, was put on administrative leave by the university this week as it investigates her alleged conduct. She apologized to law students in a message Wednesday, saying that she did not intend to offend anyone with her costume.

Shurtz explained that she meant to dress as the title character from the book “Black Man in a White Coat: A Doctor’s Reflections on Race and Medicine,” a 2015 memoir by Damon Tweedy that highlights the challenges of being a black doctor, including being mistaken for a handyman by a medical school professor. The costume included a white lab coat, stethoscope and an afro wig.

“I thought I would be able to teach with this costume as well (or at least tell an interesting story),” Shurtz wrote in her apology. She did not respond to a request for comment Thursday morning.

That apology did not sway many of her colleagues on the Oregon Law faculty. Twenty-three of them signed a letter to Wednesday asking her to resign if she did, in fact, wear blackface to the party. Shurtz’s intentions don’t matter, nor does the fact that her actions are protected by the First Amendment, they wrote.

“We are angry that you would alienate our students, staff and faculty of color,” the letter reads. “We are angry that you would destroy what others have worked hard to build.”

Shurtz’s actions, “were clearly a deplorable instance of insensitivity,” said Aaron Taylor, a professor at Saint Louis University School of Law who is also the executive director of the Law School Survey of Student Engagement, which each year queries a large sample of law students about their campus experience. “Ironically, by donning blackface Shurtz further unmasked the failures of law schools to foster truly inclusive environments,” Taylor said.

Research shows that black law students often don’t feel included in their law school communities and have fewer connections with fellow students and professors, Taylor added. “Having to navigate spaces in which one feels merely tolerated–and sometimes unwelcomed–has tangible effects on classroom performance and health and wellness,” he said. “Legal education must do better.”

Rose Cuison Villazor, a law professor at the University of California, Davis School of Law who also serves as the chair of the Association of American Law School’s Minority Groups section, said she was shocked and disappointed by Shurtz’s actions.

“I wouldn’t have expected a law professor to do something like this,” she said. “There’s a code of civility and common decency that all people should abide by, and certainly a law professor. I consider my job a privilege because I’m able to model to my students how we should treat other people.”

University president Michael Schill and law dean Michael Moffitt responded to the controversy Tuesday with a forceful letter that said they were taking the matter seriously.

“We condemn this action unequivocally as anathema to the University of Oregon’s cherished values of racial diversity and inclusion,” they wrote. “The use of blackface, even in jest at a Halloween party, is patently offensive and reinforces historically racist stereotypes. It was a stupid act and is in no way defensible.”

The law school has scheduled an open forum to discuss the matter Thursday afternoon. As of Thursday morning, nearly 500 people had signed a petition demanding Shurtz resign. “We Alumni, Faculty, Staff, Current Students and Greater Community Members are deeply offended and outraged by the actions of this law professor and hereby demand the immediate resignation of law professor Nancy Shurtz,” says the petition, which was started by Moorisha Bey-Taylor, a 2011 graduate of the law school.

In a separate message Wednesday, Moffitt told students that he placed Shurtz on administrative leave while the university’s Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity investigates whether she violated university policy. That decision was made to, “ensure the safety of all concerned and the smooth operation of the law school,” he said.

Shurtz wrote in her apology letter that “Black Man in a White Coat” has personal resonance for her. Her daughter—a medical student at Brown University—informed her that there was not a single black man in her class, and that her daughter successfully lobbied to have a portion of the book assigned to all students.

“I am sorry if it did not come off well,” Shurtz wrote. “I, of all people, would not want to offend.”

Cuison Villazor said the scandal presents an opportunity for legal educators everywhere to think deeply about all aspects of diversity and inclusion.

“Inclusivity comes in many forms,” she said. “It’s not just in talking about implicit bias and training, it’s also how we create spaces to have these frank conversations about difficult subjects like race, and taking that head on. This is a lesson for all of us, in my view, to continue examining where were are in terms of race and the law.”

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com. On Twitter: @KarenSloanNLJ.

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